From the blog of Kim Sabbatini, author of YA novel Touching the Surface
If you’ve seen the movie Freaky Friday, you know that its premise is about change and growth through role reversal. For my Friday Blog entry I thought it would be interesting to interview aspiring writers; the same writers who spend lots of time reading the interviews of published authors and dreaming of the day when they might get their book on the shelves…
Today’s Freaky Friday Interview is with Laurie Bryant. Laurie has an amazing amount of information to share so I’m going to get right to it.
KS: Laurie, we’ve been attending the same local SCBWI Shop Talk meetings for quite some time now. I’m privy to your unique corner of children’s writing, but can you tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got started?
LB: My start in writing sounds like a movie-of-the-week plot. About 14 years ago I had a car accident that looked pretty serious (I rolled over a van), but I walked away. I had a rather spiritual friend who visited soon after and she posed an interesting question: “If that had been it for you and you had died that day, what would have been your biggest regret?” And she insisted that I could not use anything like missing my kids grow up because that was too easy. It had to be personal and only about me. I didn’t hesitate. I said that despite the encouragement of professors at college and a deep desire to do so, I had never submitted any writing for publication. That realization of a second chance hit home and I knew I had to give it a shot.
My first submissions were nonfiction articles. I had attended a workshop by local author Pauline Bartel at DCC and she had correctly pointed out that new writers often aim too high–shooting for that picture book or chapter book with a big publisher. She introduced the writers to all the article possibilities with magazines of all sizes and markets and taught us about the value of published clips. I wrote some humor parenting pieces and bought a Writer’s Market and sent my first two submissions out. Within a few months I was in print in Christian Parenting Today and Hudson Valley Parent, and soon after my first article for kids was purchased by a now-defunct magazine called The Flicker. That editor really liked my work and wanted more. They quickly went under, but that gave me the confidence to branch out. I sold enough humor and simple pieces for parents and kids to realize I could do it, but knew I really couldn’t grow as a writer until I forced myself to do research work that required quotes and interviews. I HATED the idea and knew that my own phobia of approaching strangers and using the phone would get in the way! I’d never do it on my own. To overcome my hesitation, I wrote an editor at the Poughkeepsie Journal who also wrote a weekly family column. I thought his style and voice were similar, so I sent clips. He assigned me some freelance work and I was forced to confront my fears and get over myself. It worked and I wrote a few dozen stories of all kinds for them. I still don’t like doing interviews or getting quotes, but I can do it.
My first fiction work was actually more of an experiment. I wanted to know if I could craft a story of length with multiple plot threads, so I turned my hobby of reading fan fiction into a writing test. I wrote a serious adventure novel in the Hogan’s Heroes TV fandom and posted it online. It won three online fic writing awards and still stands as the single most glorious writing experience I have ever had, even if I can never make a dime on it. The immediate feedback from hundreds of passionate fans who are waiting for the next chapter was incredible, as was their reaction to the story, and I am now at 40,000 hits on that work. I also co-authored a screenplay adaptation of that story that got to original series producer and Oscar-winning producer Albert Ruddy when he was considering a film reboot of the series. We got to the revision stage and got great feedback on it. It was a great experience.
From there, and since I tend to see stories as scenes of dialogue first and fill in exposition and narration later, I started work on a play alongside my seventh graders who were doing an assignment based on O. Henry’s "The Ransom of Red Chief." My story of a kidnapping gone awry (The Ransom of Miss Elverna Dower) is now being published by Pioneer Drama and won their 2009 Shubert Fendrich Award for playwriting. As a director, I think it’s hard to find intelligent non-musical plays to produce in middle schools, so doing my own work kind of filled a void there, too. I’ve also written and produced a musical parody of the musical parody Spamalot, and that was an absolute blast. (Don’t know how to sell that one yet as music and parody rights confuse me.) Seeing an audience react to your work on stage is incredible. I’ve written a middle grade novelization of the Ransom play, and am well into a second middle grade novel–an historical fiction piece called Tomboys that includes one of my heroes, Babe Didrikson. I also have a novel for adults in progress. I like writing in different genres and for different audiences, and every bit of it informs the next thing I do. I am, however, committed to getting my middle grades out there as I need to see a book in print and on the shelf to satisfy my final writer’s bucket list goal.
KS: WOW!! Thank you for sharing that. I love how you found your way back to writing. I had a similar experience when my dad passed away. I didn’t want to live my life with any regrets. I’d like to focus a bit on your playwriting for a minute if you don’t mind. Can you tell everyone a little bit about how you get a play recognized with an award and on its way to publication?
LB:First off, unlike the magazine and book markets the play market is limited to a handful of publishers and they do it all–they publish, package merchandise and handle sales of performance rights and royalties. To qualify for submission, most want proof of performance, or at the very least proof of a formal workshop reading for the script. I found that frustrating at first because you need to find that opportunity on your own and then wait for after production to submit with photos or printed playbills or reviews. In retrospect, it was the right thing to do as seeing the play workshopped and staged really helps with fixes to stage or tech directions and you can hear any problems with dialogue flow.
I submitted to Pioneer Drama as they are probably the leader for school and local theatre markets. After seeing the play staged, I really believed it would be picked up by someone. Upon your first submission to Pioneer you are automatically considered for their annual scriptwriting award. I was notified of publication first, and that my script was also a finalist for the award. About a month later I received a nice plaque and even nicer check as the award winner. That can be valuable as it means my script will be pushed a bit harder and receive a designation as such in the catalog and hopefully attract attention of directors. I think it’s rare that a comedy win the award. Most winners are plays with heavier content dealing with social issues. The award and play publishers are listed in the Writer’s Market books and online and most guidelines are posted at the publisher website.
The most daunting thing is getting formatting right, but I use Final Draft or MovieMagic Screenwriter, or my new favorite Scrivener software and it takes care of all that for you as you type. That really lessens the anxiety for the writer! I’m lucky that I also direct in my middle school, which makes getting that production credit or access to actors for a workshop easier.
Producing plays is not like adopting a novel for use in a classroom, you can’t do the same one every year. We use a different musical and a nonmusical play each school year. Believe me, the school market especially needs quality and intelligent work to stage. It can be hard to find something to produce in a middle school as our kids shy away from romance and corny melodrama, yet want something fun and edgy. I started writing my own plays because I had a hard time finding ones I wanted to produce–even in the catalog that I will appear in. I couldn’t stand to look at one more formulaic madcap murder mystery comedy with an alliterative title. Like most directors, we wanted something sharp, smart and with strong characters and plot. We really stretch our young actors and it works if you choose the right play. If any writer loves to write dialogue, I’d suggest experimenting with your story as a play. You have no room for lots of narration, your dialogue has to move the story. It’s a great exercise.
KS:I’m fascinated! Do you plan on continuing to write plays? Will you be notified if a play of yours is performed elsewhere? How does that work?
LB:Yes, though when I started writing I had no interest in writing plays, I am sure now that I will continue. I love dialogue, and the feeling of seeing your characters come to life on stage is indescribable. Watching an audience watch your play is like having the greatest critique group ever! You get completely honest reaction. I have two more plays in progress and Pioneer said they’d like more from me, so although I will continue in other genres I guess I’m a playwright for good. Some publishers post online when and where plays are being produced, so I guess you could keep track that way. I’ll get annual royalty payments and statements, but I am honestly not sure whether I will always know who is doing my play in time to try to see it. I hope to. I’d love to see someone else interpret it. I did get to see the original cast at Lagrange Middle School because I directed it. Some playwrights don’t even get to see that much. I think I’d eventually like to take a stab at writing material for adult actors and audiences, too.
KS: I would love to know the next time you put something on. It would be a treat to come and see it…and I can because we are in our local SCBWI together!!!! What advice do you have for everyone who is writing for middle grade. It seems to me that you are getting so much insider information in a large variety of ways. What should we remember when writing for this age group?
LB:I like having the seventh graders at my disposal, not so much to test out my writing, but to reassure me that there are kids out there that still read and who can appreciate edgier work or more intelligent comedy. You see a lot of really bright, unique kids in theatre, and their grasp of vocabulary and plot twists is amazing. I think I write for them. I like comedy that comes from characters, not from slapstick situations. I also tend to resist writing to the lowest common denominator in that I really hate the idea of toning down vocabulary or writing ‘fart humor’ in my plays or other works.
You see a lot of that out there in the play market, and that is what makes it hard for me to find things I want to produce. I take the Pioneer award to mean that they also appreciated that my play hit the mark that others may miss. I like the idea of important characters who can speak in more than one sentence and use multi-syllabic words, even in a middle grade whose characters may not be perfect or even good students. I know exactly those kids in my school—and it reinforces that they can and do pull off higher-level thinking and conversation.
That alone helps me with dialogue for both plays and novel work. Of course, I have yet to publish a middle grade novel, so I am only shooting for being true to the story I want to write. I did get a great critique at our SCBWI conference in June, where I was told that the dialogue in the book, an historical fiction piece called Tomboys set in the midwest in the ’30s, was spot-on in terms of believability and colloquial dialect and expression. Like I said, I think that ear for dialogue is what helps me in both styles of writing and there is no doubt that my work on plays has fine-tuned it. The old idea of not talking down to the kids is good advice, but I also think there is a lot of heavy content out there, and those kids aren’t all into social awareness stories. Some just want something smart and fun. (2016 update: Tomboys is now out on submission!)
KS: I think your students are very lucky to have you. Now I just need your top 5 books and how they’ve influenced you.
LB:I was always an avid reader, though I read across so many genres it is hard to pinpoint just a few. I guess that reflects that now I also would find it hard to categorize myself as a writer. I honestly didn’t read YA much. I read lots of nonfic and bios of my favorite old movie stars, and I simply loved The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. It is so rich with language and imagery and humor, and I just loved that it was smart and the way it played with words. The sharper the reader is, the more you can ‘get’ out of that book. When I started directing, I made sure to produce the stage version and try to bring it to life. I think that may be the single most brilliant book I have ever read. That is the poster book for not talking down to your reader and lifting him up to you instead.
I tore through dozens of Star Trek fiction titles when I was young. (Yes, I confess to being a Trekkie!) I guess that was my entry into the fan fiction world, and through those books I learned that I didn’t love each writer’s take on ‘my’ characters and I would sometimes imagine my own stories–and I found that much more rewarding.
I remember reading lots of mysteries and all of Agatha Christie’s stuff, and reading her Curtain very slowly because I didn’t want to get to the end. I’ll cheat on the rest and change the rules a bit…I was very much a TV kid. I even majored in TV in college as an undergrad. The greatest influence on my writing life was really a handsome ghost who may have gotten his start in literature, but first came to me via TV.
The Ghost & Mrs. Muir was one of my favorite series and I lived for it in reruns throughout the ’70s. Carolyn Muir had the life I always wanted (still want!); she lived in the wonderful old house overlooking the ocean and had this never-ending supply of freelance assignments and fictional stories to bang out on an old Remington typewriter, and all the while was haunted by the dashing ghost of a sea captain who happened to be in love with her. I’m a character-driven person, and even at a young age I just loved their interplay and the hopelessness of their relationship. I’ve written two fanfic novellas for that fandom and it was great crafting experience to play with characters I knew and loved so much and give them my version of the happy ending they got in R.A. Dick’s original novel and the original film in the ’40s, but never had on the TV screen. The TV characters more closely matched my vision than even the original novel, one of the few cases of something being better or more developed on TV than in print. Imagining fanfic stories for G&MM and for Hogan’s Heroes actually helped first get those creative plot bunnies hopping. Both series needed endings, and in my writing I was able to wrap up all the loose ends dangling in my head. Any fiction I write really began there.
Thanks for the chat. It’s great to revisit the whys and wherefores.
KS: Laurie, I can’t thank you enough for stopping by and being freaky. I feel like you have great things ahead of you and I appreciate you sharing your experiences with us. If you’d like to follow Laurie’s progress or ask a follow-up question about play writing, you can find her at www.LaurieBryant.com and as Laurie Andreano Bryant on Facebook.